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Our View: An innovative school plan that deserves support


Posted: February 6, 2010 9:42 p.m.
Updated: February 7, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Real leaders know that when good people come together with a good idea and a good plan to make it work, the right thing to do is support it and help bring it to fruition.

Unfortunately, that is not what happened Wednesday night when the William S. Hart Union High School District board considered the charter-school application of the Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences.

To be clear, board members Paul Strickland and Joe Messina supported the educators who want to open a school that would teach students in English and require them to study two foreign languages — Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish or Arabic — as a means of “emphasiz(ing) multicultural understanding, foreign language acquisition and academic achievement for college readiness.”

Two other board members, Steve Sturgeon and Bob Jensen, got sidetracked with questions about separation of church and state. The school’s chief proponent is a rabbi.

Board member Gloria Mercado-Fortine abstained on the advice of the Hart district’s law firm.

Although she did so gratis, Mercado-Fortine helped draft the Einstein Academy’s charter, and she chose to avoid any perceived conflict of interest by not voting.

Had she voted, it would have been 3-2 in favor of opening the school, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

Or would we? Honestly, this proposal should have the unanimous consent of the board. Anything less than a 5-0 vote (or 4-0) would imply that there are unresolved issues where there should be none.

After all, we’ve heard the arguments before.

When the nation’s second public charter school with a Hebrew language emphasis opened last year in New York, critics claimed it would violate the separation of church and state and indoctrinate young minds into Jehovah-knows-what.

Naturally, Jewish families were more likely than others to enroll their children in the school, and yet fully 24 percent of the 150 students are Caribbean-American and thus are presumably non-Jewish. (Public schools are forbidden by law from asking students’ religion. Students in New York are selected for admission by lottery, as they would be in Santa Clarita.)

It’s easy to fall into the trap, and frankly, we’ve done it by occasionally referring to the Einstein Academy as a “Hebrew school” in headlines.

It isn’t. Nowhere in the academy’s 63-page charter application do the words “Hebrew school” or “Jewish school” appear.

It’s not even possible under California or federal law for a public school to be “Jewish.” As the Einstein Academy’s application reads:
“Einstein Academy shall be nonsectarian in its programs, admissions policies, employment practices and all other operations.”

What’s that, you say? It’s impossible to teach Hebrew and leave out the Jewish culture and religion?

Fine. They said the same thing in New York. In Santa Clarita, nobody is trying to leave out those things. Quite the opposite. Here is what the Einstein Academy is actually trying to do in that regard:

“Global and multicultural themes will often be a springboard for organizing interdisciplinary curriculum, to broaden students’ world views and provide a meaningful lens for learning.

“Einstein Academy draws on an important historical model for this approach: The golden age of Spanish education occurred during the Middle Ages, when the Moors, Christians and Jews established strong inter-religious centers of higher education.

“While comparative religious studies is not a focus of Einstein Academy ... one recurring theme will be to compare the cultures of Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, Jewish and Muslim diasporas, so that students are equipped to engage with some of the weightier social issues of our times.”

The academy intends to develop a partnership with the government of Spain to exchange language teachers and eventually students, so they can “get real-world context of a Catholic society with a rich history of Muslim, Jewish and Christian interaction and, often, cooperation and peaceful coexistence.”

Remember, the Einstein Academy proposes to teach Arabic, too. (New York City has a public charter school that emphasizes the Arabic language and culture, as well.)

A year ago, the students at the Hart district’s only existing charter school, Sequoia, were studying Japanese culture. They decided to adopt the Samurai as their logo.

The development of character being so integral to the school’s mission, the students also decided to embrace the Samurai’s Bushido code of conduct, which emphasizes integrity, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor and loyalty.

Funny, we don’t hear anyone complaining that the Sequoia students are being indoctrinated into Zen Buddhism, which is so integral to the culture of the samurai.

A peripheral issue that weighed on the opposing Hart district board members Wednesday was the academy’s ability to handle students with special needs.

The charter articulates a sound plan to provide a meaningful education for both low- and high-achievers through specially tailored curricular tools and additional coursework.

During its first year of operation, the academy would rely on other Hart district schools to provide support for special-education students. In future years as the school grew, academy leaders would meet with district administrators annually to identify the most common-sense solution, which might mean the academy would teach special-education students itself, or it might not.

Either way, the academy pays its fair share of money for their education.

Fortunately, Wednesday’s vote wasn’t the death knell for the Einstein Academy. As their school name implies, these are smart people — and tenacious, too.

They are taking their application to the county office of education, which can grant their charter. If that doesn’t work, they’ll go to the state.

They’ve already got the support of county supervisors Mike Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky; judging from their Web site, they still expect to open for the fall semester.

We wish them smooth sailing from here on out.


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